“Hey (in a super quiet voice)…… I think I just had a TIP.” I make sure to not move a step and put the same exact cast back on the fish. It swings slowly across the river and then……. another TAP. “shhhhhit! I just had a tap”, as I quietly mention to my buddy fishing 100 meters downstream.
Again – staying in the same spot, I put the same cast back on the fish…….. “wow, there was a solid grab”, said in a little louder voice this time. My buddy is now more focused on me than on his run.
On my next cast, I tried my best to make the same exact cast, in the same exact spot, and swing it over the same exact bucket…….., I hold my breath as it just crosses the money spot – This time it’s a strong hookup and the fish tears across the fast current – Not stopping until it’s midway across the ¼ mile wide river.
If you’re not familiar with a tip, tap, tug, pull, grab, take, run, riffle, pocket, glide or bucket, don’t worry. I’m here to clarify some of the steelhead fly fishing lingo surrounding fly fishing. There’s a learning curve and although some of it, like the difference between a tip and a tap may be minor – The difference between knowing pocket water from a riffle can be huge. It can be the difference between spending a day with no fish on vs. hooking into a fish of a lifetime.
I’ll walk you through some of the terminology so you understand what I’m saying on my blog or what others might be saying at your local fly shop. When an aquaintance at a party is trying to tell you how to get your first steelhead – I want you to understand every key word he is talking about.
Fly Fishing Terminology and Lingo
Sip: The gentle sucking of a fish as it takes the fly off off the surface film.
Boil: A fish that goes for the fly but turns back at the last minute. It leaves a boil on the surface of the water. Can also be a fish missing your fly for various reasons. You can use this moment to change up your fly.
Tip -Tap: These two types of interactions with fish are very similar. It’s when a fish comes to the swung fly and just touches the fly, but doesn’t take it. Just enough to slow down the fly and for you to feel the tip or tap. A good sign that the fish is interested. Make the same exact cast back over the fish for another shot.
Tug or pull: A tug or pull is a stronger interaction with a fish. The steelhead actually goes for the fly, puts it in its mouth but doesn’t hook into the fly. You feel a strong tug, like someone is pulling at your line.
#5: Hang Down: A super tip to remember. After your fly has swung across and is at the end of your swing, let it hang there for a few seconds. Fish will sometimes hit on the hang down.
Run: A run, also known as a glide, is a uniform section of river in depth and speed that holds fish. There are a number of keys when finding a good run. See the 3 keys to good water section here.
Pool: A deep section of river with little visible flow. The upstream (head) end of the pool is usually the deepest, then tails-out towards the end. You can pick fish up in the tail-out and on seem lines on the inside edge of the pool at times.
Seem Lines: The edge of different water flows within a larger river habitat area. A seem line could be the inner edge of the change from a pool out to a faster water unit. Good holding spots for fish.
Tail-out: The tail-out section is the first place that steelhead hold after coming up through a fast water section. The tail-out is the downstream end of the pool, just before it changes into a faster water unit.
Head of the pool: This is the upstream end of the pool. The head is typically the deepest and slowest end of the pool. Fish hold in these sections but are harder to fish due to changing current issues.
Riffle: Riffles are fast water units that tyically don’t hold as many steelhead. This is because there is not enough cover and protection for the fish.
Pocket water: Pocket water, on the other hand can be good holding water for fish.
These sections can have some decent flow but are broken up by boulders and structures that create pockets or buckets for fish to hide.
Look around these structures for the fish. Sometimes these buckets are not visible from the surface, so you have to spend some time researching.
Bucket: A term used for a key holding spot within a larger run. Buckets are those little habitat areas that are created by some structure. They are the best holding spots on the entire river. Usually tucked in between larger runs on the river.
Swing: This is a common term used when fishing wet flies for steelhead. When “swinging” flies for steelhead, you are casting out across the river, then letting the fly naturally swing across the run and fish.
Nymph fishing: A technique where you sink your fly down towards the bottom of the river and to the fish. Also called dead-drifting or indicator fishing – Nymphing can be super effective, especially during the winter when winter steelhead won’t move long distances for your fly.
Dead drifting: See nymph fishing
indicator fishing: See nymph fishing above. Indicator fishing uses an indicator of some type that floats on the water. Below this indicator is a split shot and fly that sinks towards the bottom. Remember to not drag the bottom with your fly, but just touch every once in a while. Plan for your fly to drift around a foot above the bottom of the river.
Double Haul: A method for casting a single hand rod that allows you to cast further with less effort. Here’s a quick video to show you how to do it from Reds fly shop.
Spey cast: A cast used when using a spey rod to typically swing flies for steelhead. This link describes a little more about the spey cast and spey fishing.
Roll cast: A roll cast, as opposed to a forward cast, is a way to cast your fly when you aren’t able to make a full back cast. Usually because you have things behind you. The spey cast (see above) is similar to a roll cast. A roll cast uses a single hand rod.
False cast: When using a single hand rod, a false cast is the back cast you make prior to delivering your final cast on the water. A false cast allows you to shoot more line, dry off your fly, get you in a better position, etc.
Line, Reel, Leader
Floating line: A line that floats on the surface. Typically used when swinging flies during times when the sun is not on the water.
Sinking line: A line that sinks below the surface. There are many different sinking rates for lines. See this link for a few examples of the the types of lines you can use. There are many different factors that are discussed in this article.
Type III line: or type IV or any type of line. This is a way of differentiateing sinking rates for lines. See this link for more information. The “type” of line tells you the sinking rate in inches per second.
Interested in the most popular sinking line for steelhead? Send me an email here and I’ll fill you in. I’m in the process of doing a large roundup post with 50 experts and will have this post later.
Drag: This is the component of the reel that control how easy the line pulls out of your reel. This is a key component with steelhead fishing. Your drag shouldn’t be set too tight or too loose. Here’s a few tips on setting the drag.
Leader: This is the entire section of monofilament that is used in fly fishing. The length and strength varies depending on your technique. Shorter leaders are typically used for sinking lines or when water clarity is not an issue. 4’ to 10’ tippets are typically used. Here’s some additional information on leaders.
Tippet: The tippet is the fly end of your leader. This can vary in length but a minimum of 12” is best. The pound test (strength) will also vary, but usually no less than 8 lb is used for steelhead fishing.
Backing: Dont forget about including backing on your real. This is the line that goes on to your reel first then is tied to the fly line. You never see the backing until that steelhead burns out a huge run 100 yards out. The amount of backing to put on depends on your reel but 200 yards of backing is a good minimum starting point.
Flies and Fly Tying
Wet Fly: This fly is tied to sit down within the water surface and can be sunk if using a sinking line. Here is one example of a traditional wet fly.
Nymph: These flies are typically fished below the surface of the water and with a dead drift technique. Stoneflies, Glo bugs, and other flies are common.
Dry fly: Steelhead dry flies are a specialized type of fly for a swung fly. Here’s a summary of the technique and fly choice.
Tube Fly: A fly that is tied on a tube. This tube allows for more effective hookups and is easy to interchange flies. Here’s a quick intro on tube flies.
Barbless: A hook that has no barb on the hook. Barbless hooks are put into place in some areas for conservation measures. Barbless hooks should not affect your landing ratio if you play the fish correcly.
Vise: The tool used to hold your fly when tying flies. Here is an article that covers the basic equipment for fly tying.
Fast Action rod: A fast action rod is one that has most of the bend in the tip of the rod. These are typically more powerful rods because they are stiff in the butt section and fast in the tip section. There are also medium and slow action rods as well that offer more flex.
Butt Section: The end of the rod that you hold onto. There are different rod butts, including a fighing butt, spey rod butt and others.
Spey Rod: A rod that is typically 11’ up to 15’ feet in length and offers a specialized technique.
Switch Rod: A rod that mixes a spey and single hand rod together. You can cast with a spey cast or a back cast.
Single Hand Rod: The typical fly rod used in fly fishing. A single hand rod is used to hold and cast the rod. Your second hand is used to hold the fly line when casting.
open clinch knot: My favorite knot for tying the tippet to the fly. It allows for great fly action and keeps the fly from getting hung up at a 90 degree angle.
blood knot: A knot used for tying your different leader sections together.
Nail Knot: A knot used for tying your leader to your fly line.
Dropper Knot: A dropper knot is used when you want to add and fish two flies.
Anadromous: The life history of steelhead in which they are born in freshwater, migrate to the ocean to grow, and return to freshwater to spawn.
adipose fin: The fin on the back, towards the tail of the fish. This fin is used to identify hatchery from wild fish.
hatchery fish: A fish that is born in the fish hatchery.
Wild fish: A fish that is born in the natural stream environment.
OTHER TERMINOLOGY LINKS
I’ve included a list that is specific to steelhead fishing in part, but there are many other lists on the web. Here’s one from Redington that covers additional information.
Think of what part of fly fishing for steelhead you have a question about. Go up to that section above and look at the common fly fishing terminology in the list. If your category or question isn’t answered from the above list, send me an email here and I’ll help you out. Then get out fishing and put some of these terms to use.
And if you’re interested in the right spey rod for steelhead, Click here to see the Echo Spey Rod that has helped me drastically improve my spey cast and find more steelhead at a super reasonable cost (You also get a free spey line if you pickup the Echo Spey). By the way, the link above is an affiliate link, which means I earn a commission if you do end up purchasing through that link. It’s at no extra cost to you, and please if you have any questions related to this product, please let me know and I’d be happy to answer them for you.
I’ve been Steelheading for 25 yrs now and that article is well laid out and perfect for any beginner to understand!
I’m also a avid stillwater fly fishing guy and would love to read up on some of that. Cheers!
I appreciate that Brian, Thank you. I haven’t really put as much thought as I should into my target audience but do believe it is for the beginner to steelhead fly fishing. Whether that person is new to steelhead fly fishing or new entirely to fly fishing, I hope I’m providing that little boost they need to catch their first fish. I think that some of the information also applies to people like yourself who have a ton of experience. Maybe there’s a new way of looking at something or doing something differently. My goal is to continue building a community of people here that can help eachother out. Great to chat a bit.
Thanks, Dave. As a novice trout fisher and newby to steelhead, this is really useful.
No problem Eric. I’m glad you found some helpful info in there. Hey, anytime you have a question as you move through your steelhead journey, don’t be afraid to send me an email. I will be developing an online steelhead course later this year, so stop back in and I’ll have something epic to help you catch some steely’s.
Does anyone else have new tips out there?